In the following guide, I’m going to walk you through the process of recording acoustic guitar.
I’ve recorded hundreds of songs in my modest home studio over the years, and slowly, through trial and error (and a lot of outside help) I’ve been able to improve my recordings significantly without spending huge amounts of money along the way. The following is a culmination of what I have learned.
First, we’ll take a look at the most common problems that occur and how to overcome them. We’ll run through some essential equipment you are going to need and get your guitar sounding its best prior to recording. Lastly, we’ll run through the entire recording process from the start to finish.
If you are new to home recording, I’m 100% confident, that the tips included below will improve the quality of recordings substantially.
Going From Good To Great Sounding Acoustic Tracks
It’s not difficult to record “OK” sounding acoustic guitar tracks, but recording great-sounding tracks can be a real challenge.
Quality microphones, a great sounding guitar, and a great sounding room help, but mostly, it comes down to two things, your left ear and your right ear.
What you hear and how you interpret what you hear in terms of your recording process will have a far greater influence on the quality of your tracks than just about anything else.
And let’s face it, if you’re an acoustic-based musician, anything less than clean, rich, and full-sounding acoustic guitar tracks will serve as a distraction from what’s most important, the song.
Common Problems That Ruin Home Recordings
Below is a list of the most common issues that affect home recordings. Most of these are easy to address once you can identify the cause.
Lack Of Clarity
If your recordings lack clarity and definition the room you are recording in is the likely culprit.
The most important consideration is to minimize reflected sound by positioning yourself as far from hard, reflective surfaces e.g. walls as possible. Soundwaves either reflect or are absorbed by the surfaces of your room.
Reflected sound causes sound waves to be detected by your microphone at different times resulting in phase issues (more on this shortly) and a lack of clarity.
You can read my article on acoustic treatment which discusses how to improve the acoustics of a room with acoustic foam tiles, panels, and bass traps, amongst other suggestions.
Too Much Bass
Proximity and microphone placement are most likely to cause an excessive amount of bass to be detected by the microphone. We’ll discuss proximity shortly, but as far as mic placement, if you point the microphone directly at the soundhole you can expect a lot of air to be pushed out directly into the microphone resulting in a rush of low-end frequencies that will make your recording sound boomy.
It is best practice, if recording with 1 mic, to point the microphone at the 12th fret of the guitar, to reduce the influence of the soundhole.
You can read my article on how to prevent a boomy acoustic guitar recording here where I go into a lot more detail on how to address this issue.
If your guitar sounds warm and rich when played but excessively bright when recorded the most likely culprit will be the proximity of the microphone.
A microphone that is too far away will reduce bass response (as noted previously) but moving the mic too far away can cause excessive brightness, along with a weaker signal resulting in more outside noise.
A good starting point is to position the microphone between 12 – 16 inches from the guitar body.
For tips on how to prevent this, you can read my guide to reducing the brightness of an acoustic guitar recording here.
Phase cancellation mostly occurs when recording with two microphones. Sound hits the mics at different times, and the soundwaves are referred to as being “out of phase” e.g. the peaks and troughs do not align. This results in specific frequencies being canceled out, resulting in a lifeless, often dull recorded sound.
We’ll discuss recording with two mics further along and how to prevent phase issues from occurring.
One of the most effective tools a songwriter has at their disposal is dynamics.
But a lot of home recordings get the input gain levels wrong (the strength of the signal being picked up on the mic). When this happens the quiet parts often fine, but when the intensity goes up the acoustic guitar sound is distorted due to the signal being too hot.
When you are testing your input levels, consider the entire song before settling on your input gain level.
Try to identify sources of unwanted noise and address them before hitting the record button. This includes but is not limited to:
- Fret buzz or mechanical vibrations
You can address a lot of unwanted noise by addressing issues prior to recording. Fret buzz and hardware problems such as loose tuners or even a rattling pickguard are simple to fix. Check my guide here, on why your acoustic guitar sounds bad.
- External noise being captured on the mic
If you are getting a lot of outside noise captured on the mic consider your microphone placement in the context of the room, including unwanted noise spilling from your headphones or the fan on your computer.
- String squeak e.g. fret noise from your fingers sliding across the strings.
There are plugins you can use, and methods (wet the tips of your fingers) to reduce string squeak. But ultimately, improving your technique e.g. lifting your fingers off the fretboard, rather than sliding is your best form of defense, but it’s not a quick fix and will take time to adjust to.
- Electrical interference
While your microphone is unlikely to experience a problem with interference. Electromagnetic interference (60 cycle hum) from lights, and appliances can interfere with magnetic soundhole pickups even if not on the same circuit. I’d always recommend recording acoustic guitar with a mic instead of a pickup anyway, but if you don’t have a choice shut down sources of interference where possible.
I’ve already written a lot about recording equipment, so rather than doubling up on that information here, I’d suggest checking out the links below:
- How Digital Recording Works
Learn how an audio interface converts analog to digital allowing you to manipulate the signal recorded using a DAW (digital audio workstation) on your computer.
- Home Recording Studio Equipment List – The Bare Essentials
A complete run-down of software options (DAWs), computers, audio interfaces, microphones, monitors, and headphones catering to all budgets.
- Computer Specs for Music Production
Is your current computer up to the job? Don’t know the difference between CPU, memory, and disc storage? Learn more about the minimum computer specs required for digital recording here.
- What to Look For In An Audio Interface
Your choice of audio interface is important, learn how to make the right choice here.
- How to Choose the Best Microphone for Acoustic Guitar Recording
Learn the difference between a dynamic microphone and a condenser microphone, along with microphone polar patterns including the use of cardioid microphones, and how these choices impact the quality of your recordings.
Getting Your Acoustic Guitar Ready For Recording
Before you get started, one of the simplest things you can do is work on your guitar and get it sounding its best.
Start with installing a fresh set of strings on the guitar. If you are concerned about tuning stability (new strings stretch), put the new strings on the guitar the day before and play them in a little.
Just don’t play them too much.
New strings tend to offer a brighter sound and incorporate more overtones than old strings, making the guitar sound richer, and more complex. Now’s also not the time to experiment with a new brand of string or try a different gauge.
Tuning And Intonation
You should also check the intonation of your guitar. It may sound fine when playing open position chords, but sometimes the further up the neck you venture the more capacity there is for intonation issues.
Obviously, tuning is also a big factor. I’d recommend checking your tuning between each and every take.
If you’re using a pick, this will also affect how your acoustic guitar sounds when recorded. I wouldn’t recommend changing from something you are already comfortable with, but if unsure experiment with different pick gauges, materials, and shapes.
Picking The Ideal Room To Record In
The acoustic guitar is an acoustic instrument, as a result, the natural ambiance of the room has a huge influence on the sound of your acoustic guitar when recorded.
If you have options, choose a room that has just a small amount of natural ambiance. You don’t want a room that sounds dead e.g. too much absorption but a room that is too reflective will be very difficult to overcome.
Reverb can always be added later in the mix but if it is there from the beginning, it is a lot harder to control.
Recording with one or two microphones?
Next, you need to decide if you are using 1 or 2 microphones.
If you are new to the entire process or the acoustic guitar isn’t the featured instrument, keep things simple and record in mono using one microphone.
This prevents phase issues (more on this shortly) and keeps the entire process more manageable.
However, if you have some experience, using two microphones (stereo recording) can add depth and interest to a performance, and give you options when it comes to track separation (panning).
We’ll discuss using one mic, to begin with, and then cover some essential information you should know if recording with two mics.
Mic Placement – Recording with one microphone
If recording with one mic, you will need to adjust your mic placement and proximity to the guitar, based on the volume coming from your guitar. A good starting point is to direct the microphone at the 12th fret of the guitar, 12 – 16 inches from the guitar body.
If the recording sounds too boomy, try pointing the mic at the 14th fret and also try moving the mic further away from the guitar. Proximity to the guitar and proximity to the soundhole is most responsible for excessive bass response.
This can vary if recording classical guitar, due to the wide dynamic range of the instrument. If you are recording with a classical guitar, I’ve written a separate guide to recording classical guitar here that covers mic placement.
Also, consider the angle of the mic.
If the mic is angled toward the heavier bass strings of the guitar the bass frequencies will be more prominent. Play around with the proximity and angle of the mic, by performing 2-3 takes and listening back (remember I mentioned your ears were the most critical aspect!), before settling on mic placement.
Remember, small changes can make a big difference here.
Recording with two Microphones
If recording in stereo there are three options I tend to recommend.
The first option is to use a spaced pair of mics. This option is great for giving your recording greater width and depth and, if you are recording in a great-sounding room, will allow more of the natural ambiance of the room to influence your tracks.
To get started direct one microphone at the 12th fret of the guitar, and the second at the bridge. Position each at approximately the same height but experiment with proximity to capture more of the room sound.
If you have the option use a small-diaphragm condenser mic pointed at the 12th fret and a large-diaphragm condenser microphone pointed at the bridge of the guitar.
This gives the tracks plenty of separation, providing space for the vocals.
The second option, and perhaps the most reliable, is to utilize a pair of small-diaphragm condenser microphones in an X/Y configuration. To record this way, place the mics close, on a 90-degree angle as per the diagram below pointing at the 12th fret of the guitar.
This is a good option for close micing, if you are trying to remove the influence of the room, however, won’t provide as much width as using spaced mics. This method, due to the mics being so close together, reduces the possibility of phase issues occurring.
What does Phase Cancellation mean?
When recording using two microphones. Depending on your mic placement, sound can hit both microphones at slight intervals creating an out-of-phase recording. If you notice this problem developing try the X/Y technique described above, or if new to the process my recommendation would be to get started using one microphone.
A/B Stereo Recording
This technique is best for medium proximity mic placement. For example, you want to pick up some of the natural ambiance of the room.
This method required a stereo pair of microphones, matched for sensitivity and frequency response. Two microphones are equally spaced apart using the 3:1 rule. This means positioning the mics 3 times as far apart as they are from the guitar body. One mic should point at the 12th fret of the guitar, the other at the bridge.
This technique increases the possibility of phase cancellation occurring as the recorded sound is less likely to hit both microphones at the same time.
Recording Direct In
As mentioned above, I wouldn’t normally recommend using your guitar’s pickup for recording unless using it as a second input source and blending between the mic and pickup. But if recording a rough idea quickly, using your guitar’s pickup can be the fastest way to get the job done.
If doing so, consider using reverb to introduce more of a natural sound to the recording. As most pickups tend to sound unnatural due to there being less of an influence from the guitar’s body.
The Recording Process
Now that we’ve covered everything up to the point of hitting record, it’s time to open your DAW and get ready to record. The information below is mostly based on my experience using, what I consider one of the finest DAWs available – Logic Pro, but I’ve kept things as non-specific as possible.
If you are unsure how to do any of the tasks listed below consult your DAW’s instruction manual.
Opening a new project
Your first order of business is to open a new project.
Give the project a working title you can remember. Once you have a number of projects on your computer you will be glad you named the project descriptively.
Next, add your first track. You will usually be asked what type of track you want to add, Midi or Audio.
What is Midi?
Midi (musical instrument digital interface) is a digital standard that represents the characteristic of sound e.g. volume, pitch, and sustain, and allows computers and other midi-enabled instruments to communicate. If you are not familiar with midi (and not a drummer) the first place you are likely to encounter midi is using midi drums.
Adding Midi Drums
If you are incorporating midi drums, open a midi track and import a drum loop directly onto the track, from your drum program of choice. I use and recommend EZ Drummer but you can also use the proprietary drum software bundled with your DAW.
You may need to copy and paste multiple instances of the loop accounting for the duration of the entire song and the count-in unless building the track outside of your DAW. You can also add fills and swap in different loops for different parts of the song at this point.
If you are not planning on adding any form of percussion, use a click track! Timing is everything, especially when it comes to overdubbing.
Adding An Audio Track
Most DAWs have a plus button above the first track. You will also need to switch on phantom power (on your audio interface) to get your mic working. Depending on your choice of interface, this is usually located at the back.
Next, check your input gain, by adjusting the levels on your interface while you play at the volume you will record at. Do the same with vocals if recording a vocal track. Then test your levels taking into account proximity to the mic.
I like to introduce sufficient headroom so I tend to record with my master slider at around -6DB.
Taken from the automotive industry to describe the space between your head and the ceiling of a car. Headroom describes the dynamic range you have available between your signal and where clipping (distortion) would occur. Waveform distortion occurs when output exceeds what the hardware being used is capable of producing.
Once you have settled on mic placement audition your guitar.
Test your levels against your drum track (if using one) and make sure you can hear yourself. Start by limiting the signal for individual tracks to around -12db to provide plenty of headroom for each individual track.
You might also need to adjust your headphone level or the mix between your input and DAW on your audio interface. It’s important that you hear yourself clearly when recording.
This can vary if recording classical guitar, due to the wide dynamic range of the instrument. If you are recording with a classical guitar, I’ve written a separate guide to recording classical guitar here.
Also, consider the angle of the mic.
If the mic is angled toward the heavier bass strings of the guitar the bass frequencies will be more prominent. Play around with the proximity of the mic and angle of the mic, by performing 2-3 takes, before settling on mic placement. Small changes can make a big difference here.
Now for the moment of truth. It’s time to hit the record button.
You’ve (hopefully), taken the information above and updated your recording process, now it comes down to your performance. Wait for the count-in and play your part.
It might sound obvious, but it’s a good idea to remind yourself to relax and focus on the basics such as timing. If you are new to recording, it can take a little getting used to, especially if you haven’t heard yourself through headphones, or played with a click track before.
The whole experience can create a little tension that might manifest in your neck, shoulders, and arms. Remember to relax. Perhaps have a drink, or find an interesting herb to smoke 🙂
The urge to record everything in one perfect take can be tempting.
And while It definitely feels more organic, there’s no advantage to spending hours of your time trying to get the perfect take, if it’s just not happening.
Your earlier takes will probably have more energy, but this is also when you are more likely to make mistakes.
Consider building a master take from your individual takes.
Editing in this way is a more efficient use of your time, especially if you find yourself perfecting most of the song only to make small errors that can be fixed with pre-roll and overdubbing.
If building a master track, name each individual track you might potentially use with a descriptive name. If you are recording your tracks in a rapid-fire way you can easily lose track of where you are if you simply name your tracks, track 1, track 2, and so on.
Depending on the song, a great way to fill out an acoustic guitar recording, especially if recording with one microphone, is to record the take twice and hardpan both tracks e.g. hard left and hard right.
When recording additional tracks e.g. vocals, having good separation of the guitars provides space in the mix while still sounding full.
Mixing Acoustic Guitar
Once you have finished recording the individual tracks you can move on to post-production, in the form of mixing, and finally mastering your finished recording.
Mixing is the process of organizing the individual tracks. The goal here is to achieve a balanced sound across the recording through individual track volume e.g. your mixing levels and EQ and effects.
EQ is best thought of as a volume control for individual frequency bands as opposed to the master volume control. Much of this involves utilizing low and high pass filters to remove unwanted frequencies and boosting other frequencies to bring out the natural sound of the guitar.
While outlining this entire process is beyond the scope of this article (music production can be studied to a degree level after all) I’ve written an article on how to eq acoustic guitars here, which I recommend reading if you want to learn more.
How Will Your Recording Sound On Different Devices?
One of the first times I recorded in a professional studio, I was surprised that the engineer had a set of worn-out, cheap speakers in the playback room along with high-end studio monitors.
When he noticed one of the members of the band I was in at the time taking a closer look he told us something I’ve never forgotten ‘most people aren’t going to hear your music on expensive speakers’.
This is perhaps even more valid now, in the era of handheld devices and streaming music services such as iTunes and Spotify where highly compressed, low bandwidth files are essential for distribution.
Because of this, once you have settled on a mix export the song and listen to it on as many devices as you can, and then dive back into your mix and make adjustments taking into account the formats you are prioritizing based on how you intend to have people listen to the final product.
Mastering, professionally, is usually performed by a separate engineer. Mastering is the process of preparing the final track in its intended format for delivery. This takes into account normalizing levels between different songs on an album, optimizing for different delivery formats (encoding), and making further adjustments to eq and compression, along with adding fades to the beginning and end of the track.
You could pay to have an engineer professionally master your song. Expect to pay anywhere from $400 to $1000 for a professional, or a lot more depending on the engineer’s reputation. Otherwise, there are a few free online mastering services, but you do get what you pay for so don’t expect miracles.
Final Thoughts on Recording Acoustic Guitar
And that’s it.
Rinse and repeat, keep refining by using different equipment, different mic configurations, and placements, and over time you will become more comfortable with the process.
I personally love recording music, it’s magical and I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing most of the time. If you’re the same, try to put in as many hours as you can. In no time you’ll listen back to your earlier recordings and hear a huge difference. In fact, you will probably think the sound quality of your earlier recordings is terrible, but that’s just part of the process! Enjoy.